It seems a little retrograde, now that the markets have recognized as the e-world’s Wal-Mart (or Nordstrom), to talk about the way it sells books. But have you tried clicking on the little “” button that appears—more often than not—when you launch a search on AltaVista, Yahoo!, or another of the major search engines, inviting you to click for “books about” your search subject? Depending on your outlook, it can be either a dose of frustration or good, clean, stochastic fun.

I clicked for “books about Snidely Whiplash” (don’t ask why I research subjects like that—it’s my job) and got whisked over to Amazon’s online catalog. It offered me three books on “whiplash injuries.” I clicked for “books about Rio São Francisco” (a river in Brazil where I hope to be barbecuing piranhas by the time you read this) and got a book on “The Rio Grande in North American History” and a guide to Rio de Janeiro. This is like offering a guide to New York to someone asking about the Mississippi.

When the button offered “books about Veridicom,” a biometric-technology firm that seemed much too new to merit a tome, I marveled—and clicked. “We were unable to find exact matches for your search,” replied, and invited me to look for something else. C’mon, guys. You offered!

I asked rep Bill Curry about this marketing approach. Didn’t the company worry about offending potential customers, who will feel baited and switched when they get lured to its site by a bum steer, or no steer at all? Not at all, Curry replied: The more links, the merrier. “The purpose is not to be so restrictive people won’t get anything if they misspell a word.” He cited his own experience as an example of why a loose filter and generous search protocol are good ideas: “I just typed in ‘potty training’ and got back Toilet Training in Less Than a Day. It’s better to allow people to be less specific.”

Certainly being free and loose with the search links will get more people clicking over to your site. But hasn’t e-marketing progressed from drawing hits to building goodwill? Offering a link whether or not you have something to link to makes a marketer seem like one of those blowhards at a party who butts in on every subject and has nothing to say about any.

But what the hey. That’s how they sell used cars.

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